Writings and observations

Terminology

Many of the voters who have supported term limits for legislative officials have had a bit of confusion: Many of them – according to polls taken in several states, and personal exposure in some elections past – were under the impression that the term limits would apply to members of Congress.

Support for the limits of congressional terms can draw on some indisputable evidence: the obscenely high, soviet-level re-elect rate for members of Congress in the last few decades, for example. The Northwest this year may emerge with no congressional seats changing party hands and just one, and then owing to a retirement, changing its occupant. (Actually, we see close to even odds for change in two seats, and a more distant shot in the case of a third.) The Northwest’s Senate delegation has not changed since 2000, and in the last two election cycles only two House seats changed, both voluntary departures. Increasingly, it seems that members of Congress leave when they’re good and ready.

The state legislatures, however, are another matter, and that is where the term limits issues on the ballots are targeted – constitutional provisions block them at the federal level.

Oregon voters passed a term limits initiative in 1992. A decade later, the state Supreme Court threw it out on a fairly technical (the “one subject”) violation, and there have been no term limits in Oregon since (for the legislature). Under the original term limits, a total of 24 legislators were “term limited” in 1998 and 23 more in 2000.

The new initiative, which appears more stringent than the old, would throw out almost every current Oregon legislator over the next couple of election cycles. (A back-burner issue in the last few weeks, we will be hearing more about it next week; a full press aimed at term limit opponents is on its way, in and apart from the net. Bear in mind as you read about it, though, who has financial and lobbying interests at stake on both sides.)

You get the impression from this that Oregon’s legislators (or those elsewhere) have been around practically forever. But turn the question around the other way – as we posed it for Congress – and the picture looks a lot different.

We took a look at the question how long current legislators actually have been serving in their chamber. (See the list for details. We counted presence in the chamber according to listing in the appropriate Blue Book.)

Traced back, of the current 30 Oregon senators, 22 were serving after the 2002 election, just 14 after 2000, 10 after 1998. And just six (Gary George, Ginny Burdick, Kate Brown, Avel Gordly, David Nelson and Ted Ferrioli) were there after the 1996 elections. No one now in the Senate goes back further than a decade.

The story is similar in the House. Of the current 60 members, 37 were there the term before that, 21 the previous term, 9 before that and just 1 – Robert Jenson of Pendleton – who is there now was there for the 1997 session. And none before that. (You’re almost disinclined to even count Jensen: he was a Democrat then, later an independent and more recently a Republican. He’s gone through changes enough.)

Acknowledged: There is the complicating factor of the earlier term limits, which did restrict some re-elections in the earlier years and depressed those numbers from the mid-90s. But if Bob Jensen could have served in the House from 1996 to present, so – in theory at least – could the other 59 House members. And the six senators serving since 1996 could, in theory, have numbered 15.

The rate of turnover has hardly budged from cycle to cycle, term limits or no. Even without them, legislators cycle through on a fairly regular basis. Fewer than half of the legislators now serving were there for the 2001 session, just five years ago, and despite the absence of term limits since.

All this matches up with earlier studies we’ve done in years past at the Idaho Legislature, where turnover seems to run at similar levels.

There’s something wrong with congressional invulnerability, all right (though even there we’d argue term limits are the wrong way to attack it). But on the state level, the problem just doesn’t seem so serious.

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